Deer Lakes drilling planned for end of '14

Drilling for natural gas beneath Deer Lakes Park could begin later this year, now that Allegheny County Council has approved a plan to lease the county-owned park's oil and gas rights to Range Resources.

"As it relates to timing, if the final lease language is agreed to, we would like to begin by the end of the year," Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said Wednesday.

A representative for Range's partner in the drilling plan, Monroeville firm Huntley & Huntley, told council members last week that the tentative timeline was for production to start in early 2015.

Mr. Pitzarella said Wednesday that it was "unfair to set hard timelines" this early, but said it was Range's plan for the wells to flow to production immediately after they were completed.

It's a timeline that works for the county, said county Executive Rich Fitzgerald shortly after the vote.

Council's 9-5 vote didn't come until early Wednesday morning, after a meeting that lasted more than seven hours and included about five hours of public comment, with the majority of speakers urging council to vote no.

But most of council voted yes. Democrats John DeFazio of Shaler, Nicholas Futules of Oakmont, Michael Finnerty of Scott, Jim Ellenbogen of Banksville, Bob Macey of West Mifflin, Charles Martoni of Swissvale and John Palmiere of Baldwin, along with Republicans Tom Baker of Ross and Ed Kress of Shaler voted yes.

Voting no were Republicans Heather Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon, Sue Means of Bethel Park and Jan Rea of McCandless and Democrats Barbara Daly Danko of Regent Square and Bill Robinson of the Hill District. Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights, abstained.

The scene after the vote was rancorous. People opposed to hydraulic fracturing, many of them members of the group Protect Our Parks, yelled "shame" and protested loudly to council members. Mr. Futules, who swore at a county resident following the vote, on Wednesday apologized.

As for the vote, he said, "I think council members made the right choice."

Mel Packer, a member of Protect Our Parks, said members would soon meet to discuss where to go from here. "We will continue to wage this battle," he said.

Some council members and county residents have expressed concerns about changes that could happen to the lease following council's passage of the ordinance. Ms. Heidelbaugh, who voted against the ordinance because she was not satisfied with the language of the lease, said she would ask for the final document.

Once it is signed, one of the requirements of the lease will be that Range conduct tests of nine surface water locations in Deer Lakes Park at least six months prior to spudding of the well, then at other sequences to follow, which will be analyzed by a laboratory not affiliated with Range. The topic of air monitoring came up Wednesday, but a county Health Department spokeswoman said no decision had been made.

Range, per the lease, is required to conduct two job fairs, and Mr. Pitzarella said at least one may occur this fall.

It will be up to Range to secure the necessary permits to drill wells in Frazer and West Deer, but officials in Frazer and West Deer said Wednesday they supported the plan.

The company plans to drill five horizontal wells beneath Deer Lakes Park from one well pad on the cattle farm owned by Ken and Chris Gulick of Frazer, a plot adjacent to the park. Two other well pads are planned, but Mr. Pitzarella said Wednesday it was "premature" to speculate on potential locations before the lease is signed.

For Mr. Gulick, who with his wife has spoken to council multiple times, the approval of the county ordinance was a welcome development. The proceeds from the lease on his farm will support their retirement, he said. For many of his neighbors, he said, the arrival of the Marcellus Shale industry has been "a godsend."

"I think if you want to see the real face of Marcellus, it's not what you saw last night, the whole spectacle," he said. "It's people like Chris and I."

As for whether the county plans to explore drilling opportunities at the other eight county parks, Mr. Fitzgerald said Wednesday there are no such plans.

"I think it would be good at this point to move forward with these projects and see how beneficial they are, see how they work."

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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